The first two professional jobs that I had following my graduation from a fairly liberal, midsized university in Virginia were both in North Carolina, a stark contrast from the openly queer lifestyle that I had taken for granted for while serving as president of my university's Gay-Straight Alliance.
At the time of my move, I considered North Carolina to be a fairly progressive state—most likely because all of the gay clubs that I had ever been to were located there. However, within a month of starting my job as a teacher at a public high school, HB2, the state's notorious "bathroom bill," was passed, legalizing discrimination against trans people in public spaces.
When the legislation took effect, I was terrified. I'm a trans woman, a fact that none of my coworkers or students knew. But despite my fury and disbelief at HB2's passage, I took comfort in the fact that I had already transitioned and had chosen to undergo gender confirmation surgery. I thought that, because I "passed" well, I was immune to the effects of the government-sanctioned discrimination. I was wrong. Although I was never told to use the men's restroom or outed, I witnessed the consequences of HB2 every day.
I started to overhear students joking with each other, saying things like, "You sound like a man," which was always directed at female students. I never heard anything like that before the bill was splashed across the front cover of local and national publications alike. One day, I witnessed a group of high school students wondering aloud how trans people reproduce; one suggested that "transgenders" could give birth through their "butt holes." The group let out a collective giggle, and started to loudly make comments about how "disgusting" the thought was.
As a trans woman who has been able to fully embrace her identity without any form of self-hate or struggle, the one thing that pains me is the fact that I will never be able to give birth to my own child, unless major medical advances are made in the form of womb transplants. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to extend a metaphorical olive branch and turn the situation into a teachable moment, but fear stopped me from acting. I simply carried on as if I hadn't heard them. Knowing that, according to state law, I was committing a crime every time I went into the staff restroom that was marked for female employees, I decided it was best if I just kept my mouth shut.
Although I was never told to use the men's restroom or outed, I witnessed the consequences of HB2 every day.
But there were also some moments where I felt I had gravely underestimated the empathy that people in the state had for the LGBTQ community. One of the most striking examples of this was a colleague of mine, a middle-aged woman who'd grown up in the area. At the end of each day, she would commiserate with me. Like everyone else I knew through work, she had no idea that I was trans, but she once offhandedly brought HB2 during one of our after-school chats, after an article about the bill popped up on her computer screen. As soon as I saw the headline, my body tensed up and I quickly tried to change the topic, but she kept coming back to it.
She started ranting about how "stupid" she thought the law was, and how people needed to "mind their own damn business." She asked me if I had ever heard of Jazz Jennings or watched her television show on TLC. Worried that I might "out" myself by showing that I possessed a considerable amount of knowledge about the brave trans girl, I simply nodded my head and played coy, as if I had never heard of her or HB2—despite the fact that I Am Jazz was one of my favorite television shows. My coworker continued to describe the show to me, telling me how inspired she felt by the way Jazz's family had accepted her, eventually leading the subject back around to herself and confiding in me that she had a lesbian daughter who was roughly my age. She told me that she had always embraced her daughter's sexual orientation, but that the rest of her family continued to struggle with it and blamed her.
Again, I felt as if it was my personal responsibility break barriers and engage in an open dialogue about the LGBTQ community, but I simply couldn't bring myself to do it, despite the fact that this was my most trusted coworker at the time. I blame the culture of hate and shame instituted by the members of the North Carolina state legislature and former Governor Pat McCrory for this.
Eventually, I moved to another school in the state; during my first week there, I was called into the guidance counselor's office following allegations that some students were bullying their androgynous female classmate. The guidance counselor informed me that the school had in place a strict anti-bullying policy, something my own students later reiterated, and something they would typically bring up whenever tensions started to run high in the classroom or when constructive criticisms weren't phrased as gently as they could have been.
After learning about the policy, I felt as if a weight had been lifted, and I could somehow breathe better. For the first time, I felt comfortable walking into the heavily populated lunchroom with my head held high instead of simply closing the door to my classroom and skipping lunch the way that I had at my previous school for fear of having too many eyes on me.
Towards the end of the semester, the student who had been bullied during my first week approached me after class and informed me that he actually identified as a trans man, and that he preferred male pronouns and wanted to go by the name Ashton rather than his female birth name. He said that he had wanted to tell me at the beginning of the semester, but was afraid that I would tell his parents. (He only felt comfortable coming to me, he added, because I'd assigned plays like Fences to read in class and taught a lesson about the life and persecution of queer playwright Oscar Wilde.) I reassured him that I would never out him to his parents—or anyone, for that matter—and though I could read his sense of relief immediately, I felt troubled. I was sad that he had assumed that revealing his true gender identity to a teacher was too dangerous to risk, and that he wouldn't be celebrated and embraced for doing so.
Perhaps I was the one who was behind the times and could potentially learn something from the younger generation's commitment to inclusion.
The following week, Ashton decided to perform a monologue that he had written for the rest of the class. The monologue was essentially a coming-out dramatization, and throughout his performance, I scanned the room anxiously, looking to see if any of Ashton's peers would respond with disbelief or disgust, but no such thing happened. Instead, all of the students watched and listened attentively as he chronicled the despair that his character felt prior to his transition and the euphoric sense of being able to exist simply as one's self.
Afterwards, they commented thoughtfully on what he'd said. "You can't assume gender identity anymore," said a student who was seen as one of the major sports stars at the school. In that moment, I realized that perhaps I was the one who was behind the times and could potentially learn something from the younger generation's commitment to inclusion.
In a time when minority groups across the country are fearful that their identities and rights might be called into question and revoked, North Carolina has something else to be hopeful about in 2017: the election of a new governor, Roy Cooper, who takes pride in standing up for the rights of marginalized people. His victory over Pat McCrory, of course, was the result of the tireless grassroots work of LGBTQ activists and their allies, and it sent a crucial message to public office holders in the state: that there is a line, and they will be held accountable if they cross it.
Despite the massive public outcry over HB2—which has cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars—and despite the state legislature's promise to repeal the hateful law, it's still in place. In the face of such obvious state-sanctioned bigotry, it remains of paramount importance that we send a message to our students that they are worth it, and that their identities are valid no matter what conservative lawmakers say. If I had to guess, I would say that the effects of HB2 will linger for some time, but I know from personal experience that a message of inclusion and empathy is stronger than hate, and it will find its way into the classroom if we let it.